Watercolor Materials 101: Paints

I’ve been getting a couple of watercolor questions lately so instead of answering each one individually, I decided to put together this in-depth guide on the materials. This will go on for three parts but for this post, I’ll be focusing on the watercolor paints first.


Note: The information you see here was not just taken from one source- all were written by me based on my learnings from the few basic watercolor classes I took when I was younger, as well as my self-taught learnings (and information I’ve picked up from my fellow artist friends) later on. If you’re one of those people who are looking into signing up for a watercolor class, this is the type of information you should expect to be taught to you.


Materials do matter when it comes to watercolor. Are you just a beginner hoping to try out watercolor? Or are you someone with a bit of knowledge and aren’t sure if you should upgrade? In this post, I’ll be going through the different types, brands, grades, as well as the qualities you should look for in a good watercolor set; and hopefully that will help you find which one is the best for you.


Watercolor Types


1. Pans
– This is one of the most popular types of watercolor sets. The watercolor paint used for this type is basically a solid block of paint (usually from the tube) that was cut to fit inside a palette to make it ready-to-use. This is my preferred type of watercolor. Don’t worry if your pans look a little bit small- even half-pans can last through years.

Examples:  Prang, Winsor & Newton Cotman, and Schmincke. 


2. Tubes
– This is another popular type of watercolor set. The color in tubes is usually richer than those found in pans but don’t see this as too much big of an advantage. Many people make the mistake of using too much paint and almost no water- which in watercolor it’s important to rely on a good mix of both. Tubes also have to be squeezed out and put on a palette (a separate purchase).

Examples: Reeves, Van Gogh, and Holbein


3. Concentrates
– These watercolor concentrates are a little on the pricey side and are not recommended for beginners. They come individually packed with a dropper in a small glass bottle. But the colors come out very very bright and neon-y -concentrated, as the name suggests. They are basically the epitome of “a little goes a long way” because of how much the color pops out. Unlike regular watercolors, upon mixing water to your concentrated paint, doing so doesn’t make the color a shade lighter; it just makes the color into another brighter (very neon-y) version of the original color.

Example: Dr. Ph Martin’s


4. Peerless
– Peerless Watercolors are little paper strips that you wet in order to produce paint. Since they are just little paper strips, they don’t really last long- they’re more of good for portable painting. Peerless watercolors also produce a richer color. To set up a palette for this, you’d need to cut your peerless watercolors, arrange them by color, and stick them to some thick watercolor paper.

Example: Nicholson’s 


The Watercolor Set I started with: my Reeves tubes (along with my palette)
The Watercolor Set I started with: my Reeves tubes
(along with my palette)


Watercolor Quality

1. Elementary-Grade
– This is the type of watercolors you’d often find at party favors. They’re those very cheap sets that kids use at pre-schools/elementary schools. This type is not recommended as the paints here aren’t real watercolors- they’re just made of food coloring and cheap dyes.


2. Student-Grade
– This the type that is most recommended for beginners. They are non-toxic (so it’s fine for kids to use) and have good quality while being light on the pocket. Even some professional artists/crafters choose to use such paints because of how affordable they are.

Examples: Prang, Reeves


3. Higher-End of Student-Grade
–  These watercolors are not quite professional-grade but at the same time, they’re not exactly your typical student-grade paints either- they’re sort of in the middle. They have better pigmentation and some professional artists/crafters choose to use this type as a cheaper option to their professional-grade paints. High-end student-grade is recommended for both beginner and intermediate painters, and kids as well (the watercolors are non-toxic). Personally, this is the type I prefer.

Examples: Sakura Koi, Winsor & Newton Cotman, and Kuretake Gansai Tambi


So the verdict? For beginners, stick to Student-Grade (either the high-end and regular versions).


4. Professional-Grade
– It is not recommended that beginners start with this as these watercolors are very expensive. However, you get what you pay for: the paints are very pigmented and are the highest in quality. This is the type of paints you would see in a professional watercolorist’s paintings.

Though, a word of caution: these watercolors contain some toxic substances that make up their pigments so these should be kept away from kids at all times. Take note too as some brands have a CA Prop 65 warning on them. Use to your own discretion.

Examples: Schmincke, Holbein, and Winsor & Newton


PRO TIP: Make a color swatch card for your watercolor set! This will help you when you paint as some watercolors may not be recognizable while merely glancing upon your palette. To make one, cut out a piece of watercolor paper and paint a square of 1-2 layers of each color. Label if you wish to. Have the card then laminated or wrapped in a piece of clear plastic to make it waterproof.


The Color Swatch card I made for my Sakura Koi watercolors
The Color Swatch card I made for my Sakura Koi watercolors


Qualities to look for

1. Lightfastness – This refers to how the longness of the color even if exposed under the sun and also the longness through time. A good watercolor should be lightfast.


2. Pigmentation – One way to tell if a watercolor is a good kind is through the amount of color it has while still being translucent. That’s basically what pigmentation is. Watercolors are created by little pigments and those produce the color found in the paint. Professional brands have more pigments while cheaper, student-grade brands use fewer pigments and more fillers.

One way to test your watercolors is this: draw a line using a waterproof black marker. After, put a good amount of your watercolor over it. If you can still see the black line, then you’ve got a good, pigmented set of watercolors.


3. Translucency – Connected to #2, it is important for a good watercolor set to have a translucent quality. Watercolor is all about layering translucent washes and that’s basically what sets it apart from other paints.


4. Blending Properties – Good watercolors should blend well, especially if your goal is to produce those pretty two-color strokes (commonly found in calligraphy).


Stay tuned for Part 2 where I’ll be talking about brushes!



Kaela is an Illustrator and Graphic Designer who draws inspiration from her quirks, childhood nostalgia, and pop/sub-culture. www.KaelaAnte.com

10 thoughts on “Watercolor Materials 101: Paints

  1. I’ve just started to learn to paint in watercolour so this is actually really helpful, thanks! I look forward to the brush entry because I’ve realized that I definitely need different brushes. Paper was also an issue at first, watercolour seems to be a little tricky. (at least for me)
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  2. This is super interesting, thanks for sharing! Although I’m not a paint-wiz my sister is, I’m going to show her this post so she can learn stuff from it – she probably knows it already since she likes has a cool paint collection right now 😛

    I guess, I look for the same qualities in foundation i.e. my war paint lol
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